I baked my first cake from scratch when I was nine years old: a simple cocoa cake, round, one-layer. I decorated it by throwing a handful of confectioners’ sugar on top, the powder landing sparse and uneven in spots, heavy like a snowdrift in others. It was beautiful, and tasted like spongy hot chocolate. From that moment on, standing triumphantly in my aunt Lauree’s small kitchen, I had a new hobby.
I found my sole domestic comfort early, unless brewing a perfect pot of tea counts. To this day, I would rather write and read than do anything else. Baking is my only life-long hobby, the one non-verbal art I have never ignored or repudiated altogether. My favourite time to bake is in winter, when the cold starts pushing through the walls of even the most solid structure. I meet Jack Frost head-on, with a hot oven and a swirl of sugar and spices at the ready.
I’m in the habit of reading as I bake. Consuming a few sentences of Hardy or Plath or Trollope whilst blending cake batter or folding in nuts and sultanas is appropriately meditative for this most serene of the creative arts. The uncontrollable frenzy of the holidays officially starts in America on Thursday. The next month will be a kaleidoscopic whirl of shopping, parties, and working with all of my settings broken, but one: overdrive. A few hours spent baking cookies, bars, brownies, and pies will preserve my nerves and restore my balance close to something I can call normal.
I am dedicating today, the 18th of November, this lovely calm before the holiday storm, to Proust and his madeleines. I was born on Marcel Proust’s birthday, 10th July. Today marks the 90th anniversary of his death. He was 51 years old, and left some of the most lyrical, evocative, and intensely beautiful writing in literature. All of that, and an unbreakable association with French tea-cakes called madeleines? Delicious.
Madeleines require very few ingredients, are easy and quick to make, and can be adapted to fit your whimsies. As they are shaped like shells, they require a special but inexpensive tray, but if you are ambitious you could try shaping them by hand!
- 3 eggs
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/3 cup milk
- 2 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 6 tablespoons butter, melted
- the zest of 1 lemon
Beat the first 3 ingredients plus half of the milk until thick. Fold in the flour and baking powder a little at a time; mix until smooth. Add in the rest of the milk and the butter. Mix until smooth. Add the lemon zest and stir lightly until it is incorporated.
Grease your madeleine tray. Spoon about 1 1/2 tablespoons of batter into each mold. Bake at 375 degrees F for 15 minutes. Cool on a rack. Yields 20-24 crusty, golden, yummy madeleines. Enjoy!
“I raised to my lips a spoonful of the cake…a shudder ran through my whole body and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.”-Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
Your first cake sound awesome! My first cooking experience was not so successful and I was sent out of the kitchen (It involved wringing out spinach I was washing like a towel)
Ha, thanks! I made that recipe again earlier this year for the first time in ages and, yes, it still tasted good! Your first cooking experience may not have been successful, but it makes an awfully cute (and vivid) story. On the up side, you had nowhere to go but up with your future cooking endeavors.
I don’t think my grandmother found it cute. There was a fair by of yelling and finger pointing out of the kitchen when they discovered how my ‘help’ was going. Talk about getting banned from the kitchen! hahah good times!
Oh, poor you! Well, you can obviously cook now…
I read while I cook and bake, too! That’s the main reason I don’t normally borrow books from friends. I tend to abuse the heck out of them (spaghetti splatters and cracked spines, anyone?), and have more than once had to replace someone’s copy. I think it’s a testimony to the quality of the book, though. The better the book, the harder I abuse it.
And I’m sorry, but I can’t think of Proust without seeing Steve Carrell jumping into a moving VW bus saying, “Have I mentioned that I am the preeminent Proust scholar in the US?!” I heart that movie.
The madeleines look great!
I’m glad I’m not alone! My brain just naturally connects specific writers, books, and poems with certain activities, times of day, weather, or seasons. I’m always putting together the combinations that feel right. Baking + classics= a seamless fit.
It’s okay to think of that scene. It’s a great movie.
Thanks! The madeleines are scrumptious. I’m about to dip one in a mug of homemade hot chocolate. Yum!
The taste of “spongy hot chocolate” sounds absolutely heavenly.
It’s just a basic cocoa cake, but it’s really quite good. Since writing that line earlier today, I’ve been craving actual hot chocolate! I have some warming on the burner right now, to go with a madeleine.
Oh yummm I’ve been craving cookies for a few days now.
Madeleines are great! Not too sweet, dense (which makes them perfect for dunking in a hot beverage) and, in the case of these, lightly lemony. Yum!
Oh what a cute story about having found your passion for baking! You definitely know how to enjoy the good life! Thanks for sharing!
Thank you! I try to enjoy the good life, anyway. I’m not quite at your level of obvious and beautiful enjoyment, but I don’t think I’m far behind. 🙂
At this thoughtful time of the year I am really thinking of tuning my compulsive fashion behaviour down 😀 I have my phases – those I enjoy fashion more, those I enjoy traveling more and those I am educating myself delving into some interesting topic – I wouldn’t think you are behind 😉
That’s understandable, but your outfits and sense of style are definitely things for readers to be thankful for. 🙂 I think that fashion, education, and travel (not to mention living in a lovely city) make for a pretty rounded life. I’ve no complaints on my end. I get to travel a lot more next year, which will make me even happier!
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